Sunday, March 30, 2008


READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 10 ]
Thomas Riggins

Chapter Two : Section Five: "Absolute and Relative Truth, or the Eclecticism of Engels as Discovered by A. Bogdanov"

This great discovery was made, says Lenin, in the preface to Book III of Bogdanov's Empirio-monism. Bogdanov thinks he is ridiculing Engels when the latter gives as examples of "eternal truths" such statements as "Napoleon died on May 5, 1821" or "Paris is in France." To Bogdanov this is too trivial for words.

"What sort of 'truth' is that?", he asks, "And what is there eternal about it? The recording of a single correlation, which perhaps even has no longer any real significance for our generation, cannot serve as the starting-point for any activity and leads no-where." For some reason Bogdanov calls such "truths" eclectic, as if Engels is just uncritically adopting them from all different forms of materialism.

Of course the examples given by Engels are "trivial", but they are given to make a point, which is that there are many examples of objective and eternal truths all around us and that idealist philosophers are just being foolish when they try to make a big mystery about "truth." Bogdanov's objections are just "turgid nonsense" according to Lenin.

"To be a materialist," Lenin writes, "is to acknowledge objective truth, which is revealed to us by our sense-organs. To acknowledge objective truth, i.e., truth not dependent upon man and mankind, is, in one way or another, to recognise absolute truth."

What we have to do is get away from these trivial criticisms and examine DIALECTICALLY the distinction that Engels was trying to make between relative and absolute truth in his criticism of Duhring's philosophy. By ignoring the context of Engels' argument Bogdanov only reveals his own incompetence.

By thinking dialectically Engels arrives at a concept of absolute truth that grows out of relative truth. Each one of us as an individual has a part of the truth, relative truth, but absolute truth is the whole which gradually reveals itself, but only partially at any one time.

"For Bogdanov (as for all Machists)," Lenin writes, "recognition of the relativity of our knowledge EXCLUDES even the least admission of absolute truth. For Engels absolute truth is compounded from relative truths. Bogdanov is a relativist; Engels is a dialectician."

Absolute truth (the reality behind the world of our sensations) is built of the relative truths we gain from experience. Towards the end of this section Lenin says, "Dialectics -- as Hegel in his time explained -- CONTAINS an element of relativism, of negation, of skepticism, but IS NOT REDUCIBLE to relativism."

What is at issue, and which Bogdanov and the other Machists fail to see, is "the CORRESPONDENCE between the consciousness which reflects nature and the nature which is reflected by consciousness." This is something that Marx and Engels understood (and Dietzgen and Feuerbach as well). Bogdanov and the Machists, under the guise of modern science are just repeating "ancient trash."

SECTION SIX: "The Criterion of Practice in the Theory of Knowledge"

"'The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from from practice is a purely scholastic question,' says Marx in his second Thesis on Feuerbach,'' Lenin points out, and Engels repeats: "The success of our action proves the conformity of our perceptions with the objective nature of the things perceived."

And what does Mach have to say about the criterion of practice? According to Lenin Mach, in The Analysis of Sensations, makes a distinction between theory and practice. Mach: "Physiologically we remain egoists and materialists with the same constancy as we forever see the sun rising again. But theoretically this view cannot be adhered to."

This is supposed to be the newest scientific viewpoint (1908). I won't go into the newest viewpoints (2008), but will remark that the battle continues! But it is an old battle. A hundred years before Lenin it was raging, Fichte, and two thousand years before that with the Greeks as well as in other philosophical traditions.

"Of course, we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea COMPLETELY. This criterion too is sufficiently 'indefinite' not to allow human knowledge to become "absolute", but at the same time it is sufficiently definite to wage a ruthless fight on all varieties of idealism and agnosticism."

Next week we shall do the first 2 sections of Chapter Three.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 9 ]
Thomas Riggins

This week's reading:

Chapter Two : Section Three: "L. Feuerbach and J. Dietzgen on the Thing-In-Itself"

In this section Lenin discusses the views of two materialists, Feuerbach and Dietzgen. Feuerbach is a classical materialist, not a dialectical materialist, but his philosophy is the link between Hegel and Marx and Engels. The thing-in-itself for Feuerbach is something "existing objectively outside of us," Lenin says, and acting "upon our sense-organs.... Sensation is a subjective image of the objective world, of the world AN UND FUR SICH" [i.e., in and for-itself].

This view of Feuerbach is basic to all forms of materialism. "The 'doctrine' of Machism that since we know ONLY SENSATION," Lenin concludes, "we cannot know of the EXISTENCE of anything beyond the bounds of sensation, is an old sophistry of idealist and agnostic philosophy served up with a new sauce."

Well, I suspect that readers of this outline have all heard about Feuerbach and know something of his materialism from Marx and Engels. If you want to read something by him I recommend his THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY, which as been translated into English by George Eliot (of Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss fame).

However, you may not be as familiar with Joseph Dietzgen, the next person discussed by Lenin. Dietzgen (1828-1888) was a self educated German tanner who indepently developed a philosophy of dialectical materialism. He was extremely influential in the socialist movement in the last half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. If you Google his name you will find some interesting articles about him.

Lenin quotes Dietzgen, as an independent materialist: "Unhealthy mysticism unscientifically separates the absolute truth from the relative truth. It makes of the thing as it appears and the 'thing-in-itself', that is, of the appearance and the verity, two categories which differ TOTO COELO [completely, fundamentally] from each other and are not contained in any common category."

When trying to explain the relation of perception to the thing-in-itself we have already seen how the Russian Machists, especially Bogdanov, confuse the materialist position with Kantianism and agnosticism. "The reason for Bogdanov's distortion of materialism," according to Lenin, "lies in his failure to understand the relation of absolute truth to relative truth (of which we shall speak later)." Section 5 is dedicated to this topic, but first we will look at Section 4.

CHAPTER TWO SECTION FOUR: "Does Objective Truth Exist?"

Bogdanov, in his book "Empirio-monism" tries to explain what constitutes "objective" truth. Truth, he tells us, "is an ideological form, an organizing form of human experience...." But, Lenin says, "If truth is ONLY an ideological form, there can be no truth independent of the subject, of humanity, for neither Bogdanov nor we know any other ideology but human ideology." But this is absurd for science tells us it is a truth that the earth existed prior to man and his ideologies!

Is this subjectivism some failing in Bogdanov as a person? Lenin thinks not. Bogdanov personally "refuses to own himself a Machist" but still is influenced by the "new" philosophy. It is this mixture of Marxism and Machism that causes the muddle of Empirio-monism. Thus, "Bogdanov's denial of objective truth is an inevitable consequence of Machism as a whole and not a deviation from it." His deviation is from materialism.

Engels, who criticizes both Hume and Kant, even States that Hegel had in fact refuted the main points in both their philosophies. Lenin then quotes Hegel: "For empiricism the external in general is the truth, and if then a supersensible too be admitted, nevertheless knowledge of it cannot occur and one must keep exclusively to what belongs to perception. However, this principle in its realisation produced what was subsequently termed MATERIALISM. This materialism regards matter, as such, as the truly objective." But Lenin does not here follow up on Hegel.

Instead, he agrees that experience is the source of all knowledge and that materialists hold that OBJECTIVE REALITY is the source of experience. If you don't hold to this view you become inconsistent and the "inconsistency of your empiricism, of your philosophy of experience, will in that case lie in the fact that you deny the objective content of experience, the objective truth of knowledge through experience."

The Machists think that the "new" physics has made the views of the older materialists "antiquated." Now Lenin was writing a hundred years ago and physics has moved on a pace-- string theory , etc., but he is absolutely right when he says it is "unpardonable to confuse, as the Machists do, any particular theory of the structure of matter with the epistemological category, to confuse the problem of the new properties of new aspects of matter (electrons for example) with the old problem of the theory of knowledge, with the problem of the sources of our knowledge, the existence of objective truth, etc."

This category, "matter", which refers to the objective reality revealed to humans by means of their sense organs has not become "antiquated", Lenin says, since the days of Plato and Democritus.

Next week we will finish off chapter two by going over sections 5 and 6.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

McCain's Ignorance About the War in Iraq is Inexcusable

Thomas Riggins

When you have lied to the American people so many times about the War in Iraq it becomes second nature to you. John McCain can no longer tell the truth from the propaganda he spouts about the war. The man wants to be president but doesn't know the difference between Shia and Sunni in the Islamic world, or which side is which in Iraq.

Today's New York Times reports that while In Jordan on Tuesday McCain accused Iran of training Al Qaeda and then sending them into Iran. McCain said "they are taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back."

Not even the Bush administration makes the claim that Shia Iran is training the Sunni Al Qaeda group. "Well," McCain said, "its common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That's well known. And it's unfortunate."

It's unfortunate for McCain that he says this because it shows how deep his ignorance is about the war. Not that his supporters care about such things. Luckily for him Senator Lieberman was with him and whispered into his ear just how off he was. Oops. He then corrected himself.

But where was Lieberman when McCain called into a talk show from Jordan, "The Hugh Hewitt Show"? He said the same thing over the air. Once is an accident. Twice is a fool or someone out to mislead his audience.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Thomas Riggins

The AFL-CIO has come out in opposition to John McCain’s anti-union stance. “Senator McCain’s record shows he is in lockstep with President Bush on economic issues,” the political director of the union group, Karen Ackerman, announced. Ms. Ackerman pointed out that, “Our economy is in crisis after years of failed Bush administration policies that Senator McCain supports and has adopted as his own.” The AFL-CIO will concentrate its opposition to McCain’s run for office in 23 states with an emphasis on Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and Michigan, according to a report in The New York Times.

The Republican National Committee, referring to working people as a SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP, called on the Democratic front-runners, Clinton and Obama, to reject the campaign against Senator McCain. Evidently Big Business, the Military Industrial Complex, and the pro war minority that backs McCain’s attempt to gain the White House are NOT special interest groups!

Sunday, March 16, 2008


READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 8 ]
Thomas Riggins

Chapter Two "The Theory of Knowledge of Empirio-Criticism and of Dialectical Materialism II : Section One "The 'Thing-In-Itself', or V. Chernov Refutes Frederick Engels"

Lenin will be reacting to Chernov's article "Marxism and Transcendental Philosophy" from a 1907 collection of articles. Victor Chernov (1873-1952) was a founder of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, the Minister of Agriculture in the Provisional Government (1917), and an émigré in 1920. He later fought in the French Resistance and died in New York City.

Lenin has chosen Chernov to attack because, unlike the "Marxist" Machists who attack materialism in the guise of defending (!) Engels against Plekhanov, Chernov takes Engels head-on which makes him "a MORE principled [i.e., honest] literary antagonist than our comrades in party and opponents in philosophy."

Chernov, like many contemporary Marxians, seeks to divide Engels' thought from that of Marx calling his thinking "naive dogmatic materialism." Chernov is especially upset with Engels' argument against the Kantian "thing-in-itself."

For non philosophers, Kant's "thing-in itself" is roughly this: the world as experienced by us is filtered through our perceptual apparatus and mental structure so we experience a world of phenomena that appears to us in space and time (which are parts of OUR mental structure ) and we can never directly experience things-in-themselves (which do not exist in space and time) which give rise to the phenomenal world we experience.

The question is this-- can we know the "real" world (the "noumenal" world) or can we only know the "phenomenal" world? Kant thought his philosophy was a good reply to that of Hume who held that we only know our ideas and can't prove anything about where they come from. To get out of this SKEPTICISM Kant postulated a real noumenal world that was the basis of the law abiding phenomenal world our mental faculties revealed to us.

In his book "Ludwig Feuerbach, etc.," Engels said that the way to refute Kant with respect to our ability to know the real world as it is in-itself, not just for-us, is by PRACTICE: "The most telling refutation of this as of all other philosophical crotchets is practice, namely, experiment and industry. If we are able to prove the correctness of our conceptions of a natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being out of its conditions and making it serve our own purposes into the bargain, then there is an end to the Kantian incomprehensible [ungraspable] 'thing-in-itself.'"

Chernov becomes very upset with Engels over this and makes fun of his so-called "refutation" of the thing-in-itself. Of course,Kantians also accept the results of modern scientific practice so PRACTICALLY speaking a Kantian and a Materialist will be saying the same thing with just different words. The Materialist will appeal to a metaphysical principle of science called Occam's Razor (after William of Occam a 14th century Scholastic) which says "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best " or "Don't multiply entities needlessly." In this case, why have two worlds (noumenal and phenomenal) in Kantianism when one will do the job in Materialism?

Lenin accuses Chernov of not understanding Engels' criticism. Engels' is not just criticizing Kant, but also Hume as well. What Hume and Kant have in common "is that they both IN PRINCIPLE FENCE OFF the 'appearance' from that which appears, the perception from that which is perceived, the thing-for-us from the 'thing-in-itself'."

As we make new discoveries in science about the properties of the world, what was formerly unknown becomes known-- 'i.e., the unknown thing-in-self becomes known! In other words, Lenin says, when "we accept the point of view that human knowledge develops from ignorance" we will, as Engels indicated, find innumerable examples of the "transformation of 'things-in-themselves' into 'things-for-us.'" The classic example given by Engels is the discovery that alizarin, a coloring agent derived from plants, can also be produced from coal tar.

Lenin draws three conclusions from all this: 1) things exist outside of our consciousness; 2) there is no difference between noumena and phenomena, "only between what is known and what is not yet known"; 3) we have to use dialectics "to determine how KNOWLEDGE emerges from IGNORANCE." [How, and if, DIALECTICS is fundamentally different from SCIENTIFIC METHOD is not a question we will go into here.]

So much for the critique of Engels' treatment of the "thing-in-itself." The next question has to do with whether there was a big difference between the views of Marx and those of Engels. The dispute centers on the interpretation of Marx's SECOND THESIS on Feuerbach: "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory, but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the 'this-sidedness' [DIESSEITIGKEIT] of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question."

Chernov is using Plekhanov's translation into Russian which renders the passage with Diesseitigkeit as prove thinking "does not stop at this side of phenomena" instead of the literal "prove the this-sidedness of thinking" [talk about Scholastic arguments!]. Plekhanov is accused of covering up a difference between Marx and Engels by making it LOOK LIKE ", Chernov writes, "Marx, like Engels, asserted the knowability of things-in-themselves and the 'other-sidedness' of thinking."

This is such a bogus argument, according to Lenin. Chernov should consult Marx himself if he has a problem with Plekhanov (who was only paraphrasing anyway.) Lenin claims that Chernov must be totally ignorant about materialism if he doesn't understand that ALL materialists consider the thing-in-itself as knowable and there is no difference between Marx, Engels, and Plekhanov. Lenin then cites some long paragraphs form a bourgeois author (A. Levy, La philosophie de Feuerbach et son influence sur la litterature allemande, Paris, 1904)-- which we need not go over-- to show that EVEN people who don't claim to be socialists have no problem understanding Marx's materialism!


Back to Bazarov! Having taken care of Chernov, Lenin now turns to a distortion of Engels by Bazarov. In "On Historical Materialism" (the introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) Engels criticizes Agnosticism (i.e., views such as Hume, Mill, Huxley, etc.). According to Lenin, the main point of the Agnostic "is that he DOES NOT GO BEYOND sensations, that HE STOPS ON THIS SIDE OF PHENOMENA, refusing to see anything 'certain' beyond this boundary of sensations." We have ideas and impressions but we don't know where they come from ultimately. The materialist takes the extra step (based on practice) and infers a real world of things of which our sensations are the reflections.

It is the whole Humian line that Engels takes on, not just this or that representative, for, as Lenin notes, "professional philosophers are very prone to call original systems the petty variations one or another of them makes in terminology or argument."

So how does "practice" refute the Humian agnostic (skeptic about things other than impressions and ideas: maybe there is something external causing the impression, maybe not-- who knows?) "If these perceptions have been wrong," Engels writes, "then our estimate of the use to which an object can be turned must also be wrong, and our attempt must fail." Therefore, images in the mind correspond to external things: "Verification of these images," Lenin says, " differentiation between true and false images, is given by practice."

Now lets see how Bazarov goes about revising Engels! In the first place, Bazarov thinks that Engels is refuting KANT'S idealism in the passages under consideration, when it is HUME that is his target. This is because Bazarov doesn't know the difference between the two philosophies and confuses Kantianism with idealism in general. So, one more time: idealism holds that things equal our sensations, Kant says we only know our sensations but there is an unknowable thing-in-itself behind them, Hume is neutral-- he doesn't know where the sensations come from, and materialists (and Objective Idealists such as Hegel) think the mind reflects an objective external reality.

Bazarov also says that Engels' argument refutes not only Kant, but also the materialist Plekhanov ( whom Bazarov calls an "idealist"! )-- this is because he wants to sneak in a Machist solution and doesn't want to take Engels head on. Bazarov says Plekhanov agrees that our sensations are SUBJECTIVE and that therefore that he holds the real world is beyond EVERYTHING THAT IS IMMEDIATELY GIVEN and so this makes him a Kantian idealist! This is nonsense because for Kant that BEYOND is an unknown thing-in-itself while for Engels and Plekhanov the BEYOND is a world of material ( i.e., independent) objects that are KNOWABLE by sensation by means of PRACTICE. Bazarov's critique is "nothing but wretched mystification" based on confusion and ignorance. Lenin also thinks Bazarov's use of the word "subjective" is loaded. Engels' speaks of HUMAN senses as reflecting the external world.

Lenin says Bazarov is "juggling" with quotes from Engels to try to lay the foundations for a Machist interpretation of Marxism. But you cannot be a Marxist without accepting the real existence of external objects without the mind "which by acting on our sense-organs evoke sensations." [Note that Marxists are NOT the only ones who hold this view but Marxists are a subset of the set of all those who hold this view.] Lenin also says "one can be a materialist and still differ on what constitutes the criterion of the correctness of the images presented by our senses." This is an important observation and should be noted. But what cannot be denied is that Bazarov is WRONG to say that SENSE PERCEPTION is "the reality existing outside us" SENSE PERCEPTION, Lenin stresses, "is NOT the reality existing outside us, it is only the IMAGE of that reality."

At the end of this section Lenin deals with Bazarov's contention that Engels, unlike Plekhanov, does not have anything to say about what exists beyond the boundaries of sense perception. As Bazarov puts it, Engels "nowhere manifests a desire to perform that 'transcendence', that stepping beyond the boundaries of the perceptually given world."

This is where Bazarov tips his hand, using the word "transcendence", a technical term in Kantianism, to discuss Engels views. It is a TRANSCENDENCE, Kant says, to move from the perceptually given to the thing-in-itself, a move based on FAITH not knowledge. Hume, representing the agnostics, does not allow this move at all. Bazarov has taken a partial quote from "Anti-Duhring" and misrepresented it as if Engels had no opinion about the 'thing-in-itself."

Here is the full quote from Engels: "The unity of the world does not consist in its being, although its being is a pre-condition of its unity, as it certainly must first BE, before it can be ONE. Being, indeed, is always an open question beyond the point of where our sphere of observation ends. The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggled phrases, but by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science."

It is obvious that by "where our sphere of observation ends" Engels is NOT, as Bazarov would have it, speaking about the boundary between perception and the Kantian "thing-in itself." He is taking about what we can say about the existence of things on the other side of the moon, or as Lenin puts it , "of men on Mars": things which are, so far, beyond the range of our knowledge. [But no longer so due to the growth of scientific knowledge since the time of Engels and Lenin.]

So much for Bazarov and his attempts to turn Engels into a crypto-Machist! Next week we will go over the next two sections, 3 & 4, of Chapter Two.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Thomas Riggins

The General Confederation of Greek Workers (Greece’s largest union) along with striking garbage and electrical unions conducted a three-hour walk out yesterday to protest the right wing government’s plan to alter the pension and retirement system in Greece by upping the age of retirement and cutting benefits. As reported last month on this blog (“Greece Closed Down by Workers”, 2-14-2008), resistance to the government’s plan has been spreading throughout the entire country. This is a real test between the Greek ruling class tied to globalization and the EU and the working people of Greece. Next Wednesday the workers plan to go out on a 24-hour nationwide strike to force the Parliament to reject the government’s plans. [NYT 3-13-2008]

[For an earlier report on these events check out "Greece Closed Down by Workers"]

Sunday, March 09, 2008


READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 7 ]
Thomas Riggins


After reading some of the philosophers reviewed by Lenin you might agree that they are not using their brains when they think, but that would be wrong. Bazarov, Lenin tells us, certainly thinks the answer to the above question is yes. Bazarov says if you say " 'every mental process is a function of the cerebral process', then neither Mach nor Avenarius would dispute it." But Lenin says Bazarov is wrong and doesn't really understand what is at issue. Avenarius, for example, Lenin writes, explicitly says, "Sensations are not 'psychical functions of the brain'."

Materialism says just the opposite: "Thought and consciousness are products of the human brain," (Engels: Anti-Duhring). This is also the view of modern science. But Avenarius, Lenin points out, "rejects this materialist standpoint and says that 'the thinking brain' is a 'FETISH OF NATURAL SCIENCE' " (The Human Concept of the World).

He, as well as Mach, thinks that science is mistaken in adopting the common sense materialist view. He says that science is engaged in making an incorrect INTROJECTION when it puts the external world that we experience inside of us-- i.e., in our brains and "in our central nervous system." Lenin will let Bogdanov explain what Avenarius means.

Bogdanov maintains that Avenarius is trying to avoid IDEALISM with his theory of INTROJECTION. According to Bogdanov, the "gist" of the theory is developed to answer the problems of the dualism of mind and body and goes like this: we have direct acquaintance with physical objects including other people. We don't have direct acquaintance with the "mind" of another person, so we postulate it as an "hypothesis ." We think the other person's "mind" is IN his body; the person's experiences "are inserted (introjected) into his organism." But Avenarius thinks this is "a superfluous hypothesis" and is responsible for the contradictions arising from mind/body dualism. If we refuse to introject we won't have mind/body dualism hence we avoid IDEALISM. This is what Bogdanov believes.

Indeed! Lenin says Bogdanov "swallowed the bait" that Avenarius' real target was IDEALISM. Avenarius' main theory is, Lenin reminds us, that "of the 'indissoluble' connection of the 'complete' experience, which includes not only the SELF but also the tree [that we are experiencing], i.e., the environment." Our experience is one unified reality self/tree NOT two realities a tree AND a refection of the tree in our brain.

Avenarius may have a point about what our experience IS but should we STOP there or can we try to further explain what is involved with that experience. Avenarius wants to explain the world from the GIVEN, but perhaps there is more to the "given" than meets the eye. At least Lenin thinks so and that is why he is a materialist.

What Bogdanov failed to understand, according to Lenin, is that in the theory of "introjection" Avenarius "refuted" Idealism "only insofar as he 'refutes' the existence of the object without the subject, matter without thought, the external world independent of our sensations; that is, it is refuted IDEALISTICALLY." The way that mind body dualism is refuted by materialism is "that the mind does not exist independently of the body, that mind is secondary, a function of the brain, a reflection of the external world." What could Bogdanov have been thinking when 16 years after this was written the Soviet Government delivered Lenin's brain to him at his new institute with instructions to reanimate it? Its still on the shelf, unfortunately.

Even while Bogdanov and the Russian Machists were misunderstanding Avenarius and pushing their own philosophy of "empirio-monism" under the guise of a revamped Marxism, Avenarius' own followers in the West had come to reject his theory of "introjection" as unscientific and as just another form of the Idealism it had claimed to overcome. This leads Lenin to remark that, "The Russian Machists will soon be like the fashion-lovers who are moved to ecstasy over a hat which has already been discarded by the bourgeois philosophers of Europe."


Por fin! We have arrived at the end of chapter one. This section is only a few pages long and it sums up the entire chapter. Lenin has established that empirio-criticism is based on SUBJECTIVE IDEALISM: "The world is our sensation --- this is the fundamental premise, which is obscured but in no wise altered by the word 'element' and by the theories of the 'independent series', 'co-ordination', and 'introjection'."

To hammer home his contention that the philosophy of Mach and Avenarius is a form of SOLIPSISM (only the thinking subject is known to exist-- i.e., for any person such as you, only you exist) and unscientific, Lenin ends the chapter with a quote from the great Austrian physicist L. Boltzmann (1844 - 1906 ): "What is immediately given is only the sense-impression, or only the one thought, namely, the one we are thinking at the present moment. Hence, to be consistent, one would have to deny not only the existence of other people outside one's SELF, but also all conceptions we ever had in the past." This is ridiculous ERGO so is empirio-criticism. Nevertheless, there are five more chapters in Lenin's book, so next Sunday we will review the first two sections of chapter two, "The Theory of Knowledge of Empirio-Criticism and of Dialectical Materialism II ".

Monday, March 03, 2008


Fourth in a series on Chinese philosophy
by Thomas Riggins

Introductory note. As China continues to develop into a superpower a knowlege of its form of Marxism becomes imperative for Western progressives. The progressive movement cannot allow itself to be misdirected in an anti-Chinese direction by reactionary forces in the West. In order to understand Chinese Marxism fully it is important to be familiar with traditional Chinese philosophy, many elements of which reappear in Marxist guise in today’s China. I have therefore constructed a series of dialogues based on the actual words of the most important Chinese thinkers. Each dialogue will present the core beliefs of the philosopher discussed plus relevant Marxist commentary where warranted. Readers are welcome to add their own comments and observations.

“Well, Fred, are you ready to discuss Chuang Tzu?”

“Yes. I have just finished reviewing the text of Chuang Tzu in Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] and reading Chan’s introductory remarks. Chuang lived in the 4th Century BC and was a Taoist.”

“Fung [A Short History of Chinese Philosophy] says he might have been the greatest of the early Taoists! This would elevate him even over Lao Tzu.”

“And Chan might agree. He thinks that an advance was made by Chuang over the views of Lao. His book seems to have been compiled after his death. It's an amalgam of his writings and those of his followers, so Chan has selected those passages considered most authentically Chuang’s own. We will start with Chapter Two which Chan says ‘reveals his philosophy.’ Here is a short passage: ‘Tzu-chi of Nan-kuo sat leaning on a low table. Looking up to heaven, he sighed and seemed to be at a loss as if his spirit had left him. Yen-ch’eng Tzu-yu (his pupil), who was standing in attendance in front of him, said, “What is the matter? The body may be allowed to be like dry wood but should the mind be allowed to be like dead ashes? Surely the man leaning on the table now is not the same man leaning on the table before.' Chan says this expression of body as ‘dry wood’ and the mind as ‘dead ashes’ has become famous in Chinese philosophy and literature as metaphors regarding the question of the status of the human spirit or mind--’whether man is a spirit and whether the mind is alert’ - as he puts it.”

“Fred, it reminds me, the last part of the passage, of both Heraclitus the ancient Greek and Sartre the existentialist.”

“How so?”

“The part about not being the ‘same man’ seems to suggest we are always changing and being different from what we were before, This certainly suggests Sartre’s view that human beings have no fixed ‘essence’ but are always able to create themselves anew. Also, Heraclitus believed in an eternal ‘flux’ we are never the same from one moment to the next. So there are elements of Taoism that seem in harmony with Western ways of seeing the world.”

“I see what you mean. I have always thought that the so called big separation or difference between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ ways of thinking was a bit artificial. When we humans start to think about things we will create very similar philosophies despite whatever superficial cultural differences may indicate.”

“You know, Fred, there is a passage in Chan that I find ironic. Look there at the top of page 179, about Chuang’s influence.”

“...’ since the fifth century [AD] , his doctrines have never been propagated by any outstanding scholar’.”

“Yet his views, we will see, influence everyone right up to the present day so that is a way of ‘propagating’ doctrines. Chan himself said, as you mentioned before, that his comment about the body and mind and ‘dry wood’ and ‘ashes’ became a standard expression in literature and philosophy. But lets go on and we will better see what I mean.”

“ OK. Tzu-chi likes Tzu-yu’s comment. He then speaks of the relations of humanity with nature and heaven i.e., all the similarities and mysteries thereof. He especially talks about the ‘mind’ which is far from being ‘dead ashes’ at least until the end of life. When, he says, ‘it is old and exhausted. And finally it is near death and cannot be given life again. Pleasure and anger, sorrow and joy, anxiety and regret, fickleness and fear, impulsiveness and extravagance, indulgence and lewdness come to us like music from the hollows [the music of the wind] or like mushrooms from the damp.’ All this seems to indicate that the ‘self’ is responsible for these feelings. But then in a famous passage Chuang goes on to say ‘Without them (the feelings mentioned above) there would not be I. And without me who will experience them? They are right near by. But we don’t know who causes them. It seems there is a True Lord who does so, but there is no indication of his existence.’”

“The ‘problem of God’ I see. What is this ‘True Lord’. I thought we had established that only Mo Tzu had ‘God ideas’.”

“Don’t worry Karl. The ‘True Lord’ will turn out to be Spinoza’s ‘God’--that is Nature.”

“What does Chan say?”

“Basically he has a comment to the effect that Chinese agnosticism has been reinforced by this attitude expressed by Chuang. The rule of interpretation is that Chuang, whenever he uses the term ‘creator’ is best understood as referring to ‘nature.’ “Any personal God or one that directs the movement of things is clearly out of harmony with Chuang Tzu’s philosophy.’”

“It only makes sense, Fred, since the supreme principle is the TAO.”

“Indeed, and Chuang says ‘Tao is obscured by petty biases and speech is obscured by flowery expressions. Therefore there have arisen the controversies between the Confucianists and the Moists, each school regarding as right what the other considers as wrong, and regarding as wrong what the other considers as right.”

“That's a great observation Fred, and it goes to the heart of Chuang’s dialectics as he maintains that opposites flow back and forth interchanging with one another.”

“Wait, Karl, there is more in this vein. He says,”to show what each regards as right is wrong or to show what each regards as wrong is right, there is no better way than to use the light (of Nature).’ He goes on:’ There is nothing that is not the “that” and there is nothing that is not the “this.” Things do not know that they are the “that” of other things; they only know what they themselves know. Therefore I say that the “that” is produced by the “this” and the “this” and the “this” is also caused by the “that.” This is the theory of mutual production.... Because of the right there is the wrong, and because of the wrong, there is the right. Therefore the sage does not proceed along these lines (of right and wrong, and so forth) but illuminates the matter with Nature.... When “this” and “that” have no opposites, there is the very axis of Tao. Only when the axis occupies the center of a circle can things in their infinite complexities be responded to. The right is an infinity. The wrong is also an infinity. Therefore I say that there is nothing better than to use the light (of Nature).’”

“if we, Fred, equate the ‘light (of Nature)’ with our ability to think and reason about the Tao of things, the ‘this’ and ‘that’ distinctions become intertwined. This reminds me of Hegel’s discussion of ‘sense-certainty’ in the beginning of his Phenomenology of Mind.”

Karl pulled down a volume from his book shelf and began to read: “A simple entity of this sort, which is by and through negation, which is neither this or that, which is a not-this and with equal indifference this as well as that [he is discussing the ‘Now’--is it night or day] --a thing of this kind we call a Universal.... the universal which the object has come to be, is no longer such as the object was to be for sense-certainty. The certainty is now found to lie in the opposite element, namely in knowledge....” “Here is another example of how Eastern and Western thought have points of convergence,” Karl said.

“This next passage is a little difficult, at least for me: ‘Only the intelligent knows how to identify all things as one. Therefore he does not use [his own judgment] but abides in the common [principle]. The common means the useful and the useful means identification. Identification means being at ease with oneself. When one is at ease with himself, one is near Tao. This is to let it (Nature) take its own course. He has arrived at this situation, and does not know it. This is Tao.’”

“This is a little mystical. You know,Fred, you forgot to name this famous second chapter of the Chuang Tzu that is ‘The Equality of all things (Ch’i Wu Lun). From the limited individual point of view we look out upon a universe made up of millions of different and conflicting entities, ‘the one thousand things’, but the sage comes to understand that they are really one. An example from the life of our time. In the MIddle East, as elsewhere in our world unfortunately, different groups of humans, innocent of philosophy, are fighting and killing one another because they think they are so different from one another because they speak different languages or subscribe to different culturally imposed superstitions or have different eating habits or historical experiences. But they are really all just human beings cast into the world to live and die the same. Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice catches this exactly for all of us. This is the equality of all humans, all evolved from the same primordial glop as everything else. We can extend this to the rest of life as well. All this is just the way it is, the way Nature is as the result of the Tao. The sage knows this and can be just as happy in Brooklyn as the West Bank the earth too is one--all things are, ultimately. So Chuang tells us when we figure this out (identification) and it is second nature to us, as it were, so we don’t even have to think about it all the time (being at ease) then we are arrived at Tao without having to think it through each time we confront a worldly situation--the sage ‘knows’ and ‘does not know it’--i.e. have to think about it all the day long.”

“That is just so true Karl. All our social problems, at least, come from non recognition of this Tao. If only we could solve our problems as easily as the monkey keeper! ‘A monkey keeper once was giving out nuts and said, “Three in the morning and four in the evening.” All the monkeys became angry. He said, “If that is the case, there will be four in the morning and three in the evening.” All the monkeys were glad. Neither the name nor the actually has been reduced but the monkeys reacted in joy and anger [differently]. The keeper also let things take their own course. Therefore the sage harmonizes the right and the wrong and rests in natural equalization. This is called following two courses at the same time.’”

“As I remember it, this is a very important point in Chinese philosophy.”

“It sure is, Chan says that almost all Chinese schools of thought adopt it--the doctrine of following two courses at the same time. They even follow three courses. He says in his comment ‘In the Book of Changes [the I Ching, which we will get to], it is said that “in the world there are many different roads but the destination is the same.” The upshot is that most Chinese follow the three systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and usually take a multiple approach to things.’”

“And we can now add Marxism! If they are non- dogmatic they can follow four systems depending on the requirements of life. The so called ‘Cultural’ Revolution was a big mistake on this way of thinking.”

“O.K. Karl, back to Chuang. He says ‘When the distinction between right and wrong became prominent, Tao was thereby reduced, individual bias was formed.... Therefore the sage aims at removing the confusions and doubts that dazzle people. Because of this he does not use [his own judgment] but abides in the common principle. This is what is meant by using the light (of Nature).’"

“Wittgenstein said doing philosophy was like showing the fly the way out of the fly bottle that is the same as removing confusions and doubts that dazzle people.”

“O.k. Karl, Chuang now talks about what he calls the ‘eight characteristics’--left and right, discussions and theories, analyses and arguments, competitions and quarrels. And he says ‘What is beyond the world, the sage leaves it as it exists and does not discuss it. What is within the world, the sage discusses but does not pass judgment. About the chronicles of historical events and the records of ancient kings, the sage passes judgments but does not argue. Therefore there are things which analysis cannot analyze, and there are things which argument cannot argue. Why? The sage keeps it in his mind while men in general argue in order to brag before each other. Therefore it is said that argument arises from failure to see [the greatness of Tao].... Therefore he who knows to stop at what he does not know is perfect.’”

“This seems to be pretty good advice. It seems that with regard to religion and such other worldly stuff the philosopher won’t be wasting his or her time, that he or she will be nonjudgmental regarding what actually exists [this can be regarded as ‘quietism’ in the social realm and seems a departure from Lao Tzu’s views] and as far as history goes it looks a little dogmatic, this making judgments but no arguments allowed. Plato tells us the philosopher has to be ready to argue his or her position and be willing to follow the argument wherever it leads. The problem is, of course, that if one understands the Tao one understands the inner necessity and whatness and whyness of all things--therefore argument is not necessary. But it would seem some type of argument and reasoning with people is necessary if you want to remove the confusions and doubts that dazzle people. Maybe you can have ‘discussions’ and ‘theories’ because he thinks arguments are more for people who want to show off their (limited) knowledge.”

“You might be right Karl. Chan says that Chuang exhibits a spirit of doubt that has influenced ‘China’s long tradition of skepticism.’ This is another reason he might consider ‘arguments’ as a waste of time as opposed to discussions with other people.”

“Indeed. You really can’t force people to believe things by arguments [except of course philosophers]. They have to come to see the truth of things themselves. The Taoist sage is one who comes to this position. I think the Confucian sage might use argument a bit more often.”

“Look a little further in the text Fred. Chuang, as I remember it, gives some reasons for not relying on arguments to find the truth.”

“Well, he does say this:’ Suppose you and I argue. If you beat me instead of my beating you, are you really right and am I really wrong. If I beat you instead of your beating me, am I really right and are you really wrong? Or are we both partly right and partly wrong? Since between us neither you nor I know which is right, others are naturally in the dark. Whom shall we ask to arbitrate?’”

“What is needed is obviously a decision mechanism by which good arguments can be separated from the bad. There was no Aristotle in ancient China to develop the science of the syllogism and logic in general. Chuang here exhibits an admirable open mindedness but the accumulation of knowledge by experience and science and the logical analysis of truth claims would be paralyzed by this attitude. Taoist mysticism may have some good points but you can clearly see the wisdom the Chinese show by using simultaneously different systems and taking what Chan called ‘a multiple approach to things’”

“Now A we come to a famous passage which shows the Taoist attitude par excellence towards the unity of everything encompassed by the Tao. Chuang Chou is Chuang Tzu’s given name. ‘Once I, Chuang Chou, dreamed that I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly Chou. I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that it was Chou. Between Chou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.’”

“It is a great passage despite the fact that lacking the higher centers of the mammalian brain it doesn’t seem that it is possible for a butterfly to dream. The ‘transformation of all things’ is undoubtedly true. All the atoms that make up every thing on earth had their origin in our Sun or at least they are the direct result of the so called ‘Big Bang.’ Hence everything that we know that exists is just a recombination of the same elemental particles in different proportions and arrangements. The atoms that make up me will eventually be those of a butterfly or a rock and atoms from past butterflies and even dinosaurs make up people today. This is a Taoist understanding I think. It is not unique. Anaxagoras held that ‘All things were together’ and arranged themselves by ‘Mind’ [νουs] which is like Tao. The Greek Atomists would also agree.”

Now we move on to Chapter Six of the Chuang Tzu, ‘The Great Teacher.’ Chuang writes, ‘He who knows the activities of Nature (T’ien, Heaven) and the activities of man is perfect. He who knows the activities of Nature lives according to Nature. He who knows the activities of man nourishes what he does not know with what he does know, thus completing his natural span of life and will not die prematurely half of the way .... However, there is some defect here.... How do we know that what I call Nature is not really man and what I call man is not really Nature? Furthermore, there must be the pure man [i.e., simple and in accord with the Tao] before there can be true knowledge.’”

“I see the problem. How can we be sure we are on the road to being a true sage? Maybe we will end as a fascist stooge as did Heidegger or betray humanity or human heartedness (jen) as did Nietzsche.”

“We are going to come to some difficult passages now Karl. I’m not sure we can understand them outside of the entire context of ancient Chinese culture in which they are embedded.”

“Well, we will have to make the attempt. It may be some of this philosophy just won’t be able to smoothly move over into our way of seeing things but we can at least try to understand what Chuang means.”

“Chapter Six continues: ‘Therefore he who takes special delight in understanding things is not a sage. He who shows [special] affection [to anyone] is not a man of humanity (jen, love).... He who seeks fame and thus loses his own nature is not learned. And he who loses his own nature and thus misses the true way is not one who can have others do things for him.’”

“This seems to indicate that the sage should love all forms of learning equally. He also seems to be in agreement with Mo Tzu in thinking that one should not be partial in showing affection [love]. If so it shows that some Taoists were close to Mohism and even distancing themselves farther from the Confucianists. It is obvious that the sage should not seek fame at the expenses of truth. I’m not sure the sage should want ‘others to do things for him.’ Others might be helpful, as say the followers of Socrates helped him out due to his singled minded pursuit of philosophy and consequent neglect of practical affairs, but this should not be something the sage ‘wants’ or expects.”

“What about this: ‘To regard knowledge as a product of time means to respond to events as if they had to be. And to regard virtue as people’s observance means that it is comparable to the fact that anyone with two feet can climb a hill, but people think that a pure man makes a diligent effort to do so. Therefore what he liked was one and what he did not like was also one.... He who regards all things as one is a companion of Nature. He who does not regard all things as one is a companion of man. Neither Nature nor man should overcome the other. This is what is meant by a pure man.’ So tell me Karl that this is not confusing!”

“Confusing it is. But I think he means that we should be impartial and also accept Nature for what it is. Don’t make value judgments about Nature. For example, as a person I don’t like the aids virus and would like to eradicate it. But from the point of view Nature the virus is simply a part of the totality of existence and is doing its thing just as everything else is that makes up the fabric of the interaction of all the elements of reality. As Hume said--from the point of view of Nature an oyster is the same as a human being. The sage knows this. But as a human being the sage also knows it's ok to be against the aids virus. These two views or attitudes are in balance in the ‘pure man’. As to the comment about regarding knowledge as a product of time, it seems to suggest determinism. This seems to be in accordance with Tao and the sage should be in accordance with Tao.”

“This may also be reflected in the following Karl: ‘If our physical bodies went through ten thousand transformations without end, how incomparable would this joy be! Therefore the sage roams freely in the realm in which nothing can escape but all endures’”

“But the sage does not endure!”

“He goes on: ‘Tao has reality and evidence but no action or physical form. It may be transmitted but cannot be received. It may be obtained but cannot be seen. It is based in itself, rooted in itself. Before heaven and earth came into being, Tao existed by itself from all time.... It created heaven and earth.’”

“Tao is playing the role of Yahweh only without the personality attributed to It. “

“Chan makes a good point here. Chuang says the sage has to be impartial: ‘In dealing with things, he would not lead forward or backward to accommodate them.’ Chan says this phrase ‘has become a favorite dictum [“not to lean forward or backward”] among later Chinese thinkers, especially Neo-Confucianists. It does not mean moderation or indifference but absolute spontaneity and impartiality in dealing with things and complete naturalness in response to things.’”

“Chan’s observations are usually quite good.”

“What do you think of this. I think Chuang would have been a Stoic had he lived in ancient Rome instead of China. This is a vignette about a very sick person, Tzu-yu, whose ‘internal organs were on top of his body’ so he was really in dire straits about to pass on but was very accepting of his condition because, as he told his friend Tzu-suu: ‘When we come, it is because it was the occasion to be born. When we go, it is to follow the natural course of things. Those who are contented and at ease when the occasion comes and live in accord with the course of Nature cannot be affected by sorrow or joy. This is what the ancients called release from bondage. Those who cannot release themselves are so because they are bound by material things. That material things cannot overcome Nature, however, has been a fact from time immemorial. Why, then should I dislike it [the disease]?’”

“I see what you mean Fred.”

“Wait up Karl, there’s more.”

“Another vignette?”

“Tzu-li goes to visit the dying Tzu-lai and says to the grieving family: ‘Go away.... Don’t disturb the transformation that is about to take place.... Great is the Creator [i.e., Nature]! What will he make of you now? Where will he take you? Will he make you into a rat’s liver. Will he make you into an insects leg?’ Far from being upset by this intrusion, Tzu-lai responds in kind: ‘Wherever a parent tells a son to go, whether east, west, south, or north, he has to obey. The yin and yang are like man’s parents. If they pressed me to die and I disobeyed, I would be obstinate. What fault is theirs? For the universe gave me the body so I may be carried, my life so I may toil, my old age so I may repose, and my death so I may rest.
Therefore to regard life as good is the way to regard death as good.’”

“Well, this is very Stoic, a very Greco-Roman attitude. This is the Stoic apathia. To accept whatever comes along in life as just the working out of the logos or the law of the universe. Resistance is futile!”

“Here is a passage about Confucius!”

“Don’t be alarmed Fred. Chuang Tzu never knew Confucius. The Taoists, who were great rivals of the Confucians and didn’t appreciate their philosophy at all, liked to pretend that in his old age Confucius was finally enlightened and converted to Taoism. As a result of this phantasy, Confucius crops up in Taoist works expressing very un-Confucian opinions. What is he doing here?”

“One of three friends has died and Confucius has sent his rather orthodox pupil to the funeral to represent him. This pupil, Tzu-kung,[he was of the major disciples] no less, was shocked to see the two surviving friends singing and playing the lute. This was a big no-no from Tzu-kung’s viewpoint--a major violation of the li or ceremonial procedures required for a proper funeral. He hurries back to Confucius to complain about the unseemly behavior of the departed’s companions. But this Taoist Confucius remarks: ‘They travel in the transcendental world and I travel in the mundane world. There is nothing in common between the two worlds, and I sent you there to mourn! How stupid!... How can they take the trouble to observe the rules of propriety of popular society in order to impress the multitude?’”

“Do you think the real Confucius would have said that Fred?”

“Maybe. I don’t say he would have, but he was a very open minded person. IF he had known Chuang Tzu he might have been able to deal with this. After all, it was a private funeral with a few like minded friends.”

“We will never know.”

Chan thinks this passage is very important. Do you want me to read his commentary?”


“He says, “Chuang Tzu distinguished traveling in the transcendental world, or fang-wai (literally, “outside the sphere” of human affairs), and traveling in the mundane world, or fang-nei (literally, “inside the sphere”). Later the former came to mean Buddhism and the latter Confucianism. The first distinction was made here. To consider life as a temporary existence of various elements is highly Buddhistic, for in Buddhism an entity is but a temporary grouping of five elements. But Taoism is free from the quietism of Buddhism and emphasizes non-action. As Kuo-Hsiang [died 312 AD] emphatically stated, however, taking no action does not mean doing nothing but simply doing nothing unnatural.’”

“Is that it for Tzu-kung and Confucius?”

“No, there’s more bogus Confucius. ‘Confucius said,”Fishes attain their full life in water and men attain theirs in the Tao. Those fish which attain a full life in water will be well nourished if a pool is dug for them, and those men who attain a full life in the Tao will achieve calmness of nature through inaction. Therefore it is said, ‘Fishes forget each other (are happy and at ease with themselves) in rivers and lakes and men forget each other in the workings of Tao.’” “May I ask about those strange people?” said Tzu-kung. Replied Confucius, “Those strange people are strange in the eyes of man but are equal to Nature. Therefore it is said, ‘The inferior man to Nature is a superior man to men, and the superior man to men is an inferior man to Nature.’”’”

“I seem to remember Yen Hui, Confucius’ favorite disciple, getting into the act.”

“You remember correctly Karl. Chuang Tzu’s famous doctrine of ‘sitting down and forgetting everything’ [famous because of its later use by the Neo-Confucians] is put in to the mouth of Yen Hui. Yen made the comment in the context of being asked by Confucius what progress he had made. ‘I cast aside my limbs,’ replied Yen Hui, ‘discard my intelligence, detach from both body and mind, and become one with [the] Great Universal (Tao). This called sitting down and forgetting everything.’”

“Excellent. This would no doubt drive an orthodox Confucian to distraction.”

“No doubt. That’s it for the two major philosophical chapters presented by Chan, but he has some interesting passages in his ‘Additional Selections.’”

“Well what are you waiting for?”

“This is from ‘The Nature and Reality of Tao’. Which comes from chapter 12 of the Chuang Tzu. Its rather long.”

“Is it important?”

“Chan thinks so. He says its a pretty important statement of Taoist metaphysics.”

“By all means then,Fred, lets hear it.”

“Here goes: ‘In the great beginning there was non-being. It had neither being nor name. The One originates from it: it has oneness but not yet physical form. When things obtain it and come into existence, that is called virtue (which gives them their individual character). That which is formless is divided [into yin and yang], and from the very beginning going on without interruption is called destiny (ming, fate). Through movement and rest it produces all things. When things are produced in accordance with the principle (li) of life, there is physical form. When the physical form embodies and preserves the spirit so that all activities follow their own specific principles, that is nature. By cultivating one’s nature one will return to virtue. When virtue is perfect, one will be one with the beginning. Being one with the beginning, one becomes vacuous (hsü, receptive to all), and being vacuous, one becomes great. One will then be united with the sound and breath of things. When one is united with the sound and breath of things, one is united with the universe. This unity is intimate and seems to be stupid and foolish. This is called profound and secret virtue, this is complete harmony.’”

“This requires some thought.”

“What do you make of it?”

“I think it fits with what we today might agree to. Before the universe there was nothing (non-being) --if we can use the word ‘before’ in this context--there is then the ‘Big Bang’ (the One originates) and the rest of the universe evolves into what we have now by means of the laws of nature (ming, li or fate and principle). If we want to live intelligent and happy lives we must understand the natural laws and conform to them (virtue). If we follow this Taoist outline of virtue we will be in harmony both with ourselves and with Nature. But I must stress, Fred, that Chuang Tzu is of course not privy to the type of modern scientific understanding of the universe that has developed over the last few centuries, never-
theless this passage of his is not contrary or out of step with modern notions. It is certainly nearer to contemporary scientific understanding than anything the spokesmen of the currently popular so-called ‘world’ religions are dishing out!”

“There is some strange evolutionary speculation that Chan includes about insects turning into horses and horses turning into men! This may not be a meant to be taken seriously but Chan says it shows the Chuang saw everything in Flux (Heraclitus) and ‘conceived reality as ever changing and as developing from the simple to the complex.’”

“Don’t forget Chuang is only a few hundred years away from the Pre-Socratics who also had strange, by our lights, views on evolution especially Empedocles. Not so much Anaxamander who thought we came from fish.”

“O.K., now it's time for supplement five ‘Tao as Transformation and One.’ Ready?”


“’Although the universe is vast, its transformation is uniform. Although the myriad things are many, their order is one. Although people are numerous, their ruler is the sovereign. The sovereign traces his origin to virtue (te, individual and essential character), and attains his perfection in Nature. Therefore it is said in the cases of sovereigns of high antiquity no [unnatural] action (wu-wei) was undertaken and the empire was in order.... When all things in general are seen through Tao, the response of things to each other becomes complete. Therefore it is virtue that penetrates Heaven and Earth, and it is Tao that operates in all things. Government by the ruler means human affairs, and when ability is applied to creative activities, it means skill. Skill, is commanded by Nature. Therefore it is said that ancient rulers of empires had no [selfish] desires and the empire enjoyed sufficiency.’”

"Anything more in this section?”

“Yes-- the Ten Points that the great man or the sage must adhere to if he wants the world to listen to him. This is the Grand Master talking....”

“The Grand Master?”

“Its really Confucius but Chuang calls him the ‘Grand Master’. By the way, these may be Taoist points but from what we discussed about Confucius, I think he really would agree with all of them.”

“Let’s hear them!”

“’ [1] To act without taking an [unnatural action] means Nature. [2] To speak without any action means virtue. [3] To love people and benefit all things means humanity (jen). [4] To identify with all without each losing his own identity means greatness. [5] To behave without purposely showing any superiority means broadness. [6] To possess an infinite variety means richness. [7] Therefore to adhere to virtue is called discipline. [8] To realize virtue means strength. [9] To be in accord with Tao means completeness. [10] And not to yield to material things is called perfection.’”

“I also think the real Confucius would go along with these Fred. But I would add ‘unnatural’ before ‘action’ in number 2 as it doesn’t make that much sense to me without it.”

“Supplement Six: ‘Nature vs. Man’: This is the Spirit of the North Sea speaking to Uncle River--’An owl can catch fleas at night, and sees the tip of a hair, but in the daytime even with its eyes wide open it cannot see a mountain, which shows that different things have different natures. Therefore it is said, “Why not let us follow the right instead of the wrong, and follow order instead of chaos?” This is to misunderstand the principle (li) of nature and the reality of things.’ This confuses Uncle River as to what he should be doing, so the Spirit of the North Sea adds, ‘Never stick to one’s own intention and thus handicap the operation of Tao.’”

“I see. This means, of course, that we must first understand the Tao and then not be bull headed and try to force the world to do what we want rather than to adjust ourselves to reality. This is reminiscent of Descartes’ third maxim in his Discourse on Method where he says he will always try ‘to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to alter my desires rather than change the order of the world’ so he too seeks to be in tune with the Tao.”

“Uncle River next wants to know the value of Tao. He is told ‘One who knows Tao will surely penetrate the principle of things, and one who penetrates the principles of things will surely understand their application in various situations.’ I take it that was what Descartes was also interested in. The Spirit of the North Sea continues, ‘It means that he discriminates between safety and danger, remains calm whether he suffers calamity or enjoys blessing, and is careful about taking or not taking an action, so that none can harm him. Therefore it is said that what is natural lies within and what is human lies without, and virtue abides in the natural.’ The Spirit then gives an example of just what he means by Nature. ‘A horse or a cow has four feet. That is Nature. Put a halter around the horse’s head and put a string through the cow’s nose, that is man. Therefore it is said, “Do not let man destroy Nature.”’

“Very good L, but must we not admit that man is also part of Nature and it is not against the Nature of a horse to put a halter on it and to ride it, as it would say, to try to do that to a tiger. Men ride horses not tigers and that is also Nature and due to Tao.”

“Then the Spirit of the North Sea is giving bum answers to Uncle River?”

“Let us just say that the Spirit of the North Sea may have a point but there is no Chinese Wall between man and Nature. It is because of this that Confucianism is able to function as an enlightened philosophy and the true sage is not exclusively a Taoist nowadays.”

“In Supplement Seven, Chuang further develops his ideas of objectivity. He says, ‘Exercise fully what you have received from Nature. In one word, be absolutely vacuous (hsü) [having no selfish desires or bias--Chan]. The mind of the perfect man is like a mirror. It does not lean forward or backward in its response to things. It responds to things but conceals nothing of its own. Therefore it is able to deal with things without injury to [its reality].’”

“I remember that Chan said the mirror symbolism was important. Why don’t you read his comment?”

“O.k.--he says its an important ‘symbol for the mind both in Zen Buddhism and in Neo-Confucianism. The difference is that with Buddhism, external reality is to be transcended, whereas with Chuang Tzu and the Neo-Confucianists, external reality is to be responded to naturally and faithfully, like a mirror objectively reflecting all.’”

“This is like naive realism in Western epistemology and in some forms of Marxism. I remember Lenin’s opinion that the mind ‘reflects’ external reality. This seems to be a rejection of Kantian views.’”

“In Supplement 8 ‘Sageliness and Kingliness’ we find the following: ‘The evolution of the Tao of Nature goes on without obstruction. Therefore all things are produced. The evolution of the Tao of the sovereign goes on without obstruction and therefore the whole empire comes to him. The evolution of the Tao of the sage goes on without obstruction and therefore the whole world pays him homage.’”

“I’m glad the term ‘evolution’ is used Fred. We live in vastly different times here in the West as do many of the people of the East undergoing ‘modernization’. Chuang’s views still can hold but they must be seen to have ‘evolved.’ The Tao of Nature is the same but the Tao of the sovereign no longer can be seen in terms of the emperor system of pre-revolutionary China. The ‘sovereign’ of today is the mass of the people and in China this means the workers and peasants. If the Chinese Communist Party truly represents their interests--i.e., if it represents the sovereign--then we can interpret the phrase ‘the whole empire comes to him’ to mean that the party has the support of the people in its policies. In this way of speaking, I would say that updated Chuang means as long as the Tao of the people’s interests is without obstruction the party will have the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ This analysis goes for any country--not just China--but you have to be clever enough to match Chuang’s views with the objective reality you are confronting in each case. Finally, the sage should not care if the whole world gives him/her homage but if the sage correctly understands the Tao this may happen. Sages, however, are often out of tune with the times.”

“I agree with you Karl. I think Chuang would too. Here is another quote: ‘Vacuity, tranquillity, mellowness, quietness, and taking no [unnatural] action characterize the things of the universe at peace and represent the ultimate of Tao and virtue. Therefore rulers and sages abide in them.’”


“Finally, Chuang says, ‘ One who is in accord with the world is in harmony with men. To be in harmony with men means human happiness, and to be in harmony with Nature means the happiness of Nature.’ What do you make of that Karl.?”

“In the first place ‘the happiness of Nature’ must be our happiness with Nature since Nature is neither happy nor unhappy, it just is what it is. In the second place, does the statement about the one who is in accord with the world being in accord with men mean (1) going along with what everyone thinks is being in accord with them and hence with the world [don’t rock the boat] or does it mean [2] if you correctly understand the nature of the world that means you will find yourself in accord with your fellow men [definitely counterfactual!]. If it means (1) it is trivial and unworthy of the Sage [so Chuang doesn’t mean this] and if it is (2) then it must be false as hoi polloi predominate and they do not see the world as the Sage does in most instances and so the Sage will be out of accord on many issues. Of course it is happiness to be in harmony with men but only if the men in question are themselves in harmony with the Tao. For example, the German Nazi philosopher Heidegger found himself in ‘harmony’ with most of his fellow Germans believing that the Tao of Hitler was the Tao itself. But would we want to say he was ‘happy’--maybe for a short while. And if he was in accord with ‘men’ was he with Nature? You may reply that ‘men’ means ‘all men’ and so the Nazis lost because their Tao was a false Tao. As you can see, Fred, this is a very complicated issue.”

“So I see. Coming up is a famous vignette about the death of Chuang’s wife.”

“Lets hear it!”

“This is Chan’s Ninth Supplement ‘The Equality of Life and Death’ I’m going to read all of it because it is so famous:

‘Chuang Tzu’s wife died and Hui Tzu went to offer his condolence. He found Chuang Tzu squatting on the ground and singing, beating on an earthen bowl. He said, “Someone has lived with you, raised children for you and now she has aged and died. Is it not enough that you should not shed any tear? But now you sing and beat the bowl. Is this not too much?”

“No,” replied Chuang Tzu. “When she died, how could I help being affected? But as I think the matter over, I realize that originally she had no life; and not only no life, she had no form; not only no form, she had no material force (ch’i)."

"In the limbo of existence and non-existence, there was transformation and the material force was evolved. The material force was transformed to be form, for was transformed to become life, and now birth has transformed to become death. This is like the rotation of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter. Now she lies asleep in the great house (the universe). For me to go about weeping and wailing would be to show my ignorance of destiny. Therefore I desist.”’”

“That says it all, Fred. No Stoic, Epicurean or classical Skeptic, let alone any religious thinker, could have put it any better. Secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics would be hard pressed to to top Chuang here. But I think it takes a real sage -AKA philosopher-to find comfort in this view of life.”

“Maybe ‘comfort’ is not what this view offers.”

“True. Maybe ’resignation’ and ‘acceptance’ of the Tao is a better understanding than ‘comfort’.”

“One last vignette, A. Supplement Ten--’Subjectivity’--’Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were taking a leisurely walk along the dam of the Hao River. Chuang Tzu said, “The white fish are swimming at ease. This is the happiness of the fish.”

“You are not fish.” said Hui Tzu. “How do you know its happiness?”

You are not I,” said Chuang Tzu. “How do you know that I do not know the happiness of the fish?”

Hui Tzu said, “Of course I do not know, since I am not you. But you are not the fish, and it is perfectly clear that you do not know the happiness of the fish.”

“Let us get to the bottom of the matter,” said Chuang Tzu. “When you asked how I knew the happiness of the fish, you already knew that I knew the happiness of the fish but asked how. I knew it along the river.”’

“This is a cute story, Fred, but Chuang’s logic can be used right back at him by Hui. I don’t suppose, though, that these vignettes are supposed to be taken as logical.”

“You are surely correct Karl. That ends our readings in the Chuang Tzu. What do you think we should do next?”

“I think we should do Mencius the official number two man in Confucianism--or Mengzi or Meng Tzu as he is also known. Since the Latin form of Mencius is so traditional let’s stick with that.”

“Sounds good to me Karl. But its getting late and I have stuff to do tonight. Let us meet tomorrow after breakfast back here in your study. I’ll come by around ten or so for coffee and conversation.

“All right Fred, I’ll see you then.”

Sunday, March 02, 2008


READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 6 ]
Thomas Riggins

Chapter One Section Four: Did Nature Exist Prior to Man?

This seems to be a big problem for Empirio-criticism. Lenin will look at the views of Avenarius and his two followers R. Willy and J. Petzoldt and see how this question is dealt with by two of the Russian "Marxist" Machists, Bazarov and Valentinov.

Avenarius, as we know, has a two term co-ordination; Man-Nature, (with Man as the central term) to explain how we gain knowledge of the contents of the world. Since natural science clearly states that the earth existed before humans it would seem impossible to take the world's contents to be "complexes of sensations." Avenarius therefore introduces the notion of the "potential" into his philosophy.

When there are no actual humans about there are "potential" humans to sense the complexes of sensations by which reality presents itself. Avenarius talks about embryonic humans-- they are not FULLY human but also not equal to zero. So also, before any actual humans there are "integral parts of the environment" that have the capacity to become human, etc. So we have a saving co-ordination of Potential(Man)-Nature. On the face of it this is a completely preposterous solution.

"No man at all educated or sound-minded," Lenin says, "doubts that the earth existed at a time when there COULD NOT have been any life on it, any sensation or any 'central term', and consequently the whole theory of Mach and Avenarius, from which it follows that the earth is a complex of sensations ('bodies are complexes of sensations') or 'complexes of elements in which the psychical and physical are identical', or a 'counter-term of which the central term can never be equal to zero', is PHILOSOPHICAL OBSCURANTISM, the carrying of subjective idealism to absurdity."

Petzoldt, Lenin remarks, realized that Avenarius' position was ridiculous and decided to improve upon it. It is true that we can think about areas without or before there were human beings, he says, but "The epistemologically important question, however," Petzoldt writes, "is not whether we can think of such a region at all, but whether we are entitled to think of it as existing, or as having existed, independently of any individual mind."

We shall see that Petzoldt's attempt to improve on Avenarius is not any better than the original. Avenarius puts too much weight on the human SELF, whether actual or potential according to Petzoldt, whereas, "The only thing," he says, "the theory of knowledge should demand of any conceptions of that which is remote in space or time is that it be conceivable and can be uniquely determined; all the rest is a matter for the special sciences."

The expression "uniquely determined" is just Petzoldt's way of saying "the law of causality" according to Lenin. Petzoldt knows that natural science maintains the existence of the earth before humans and he also knows that Avenarius' lack "of the objective factor" in his philosophy puts it at odds with science and this has forced him "to resort to causality (unique determination). The earth existed, for its existence prior to man is causally connected with the present existence of the earth."

Petzoldt's "solution" actually wipes out the "complexes of sensations" hypothesis regarding the nature of the external world and he "only entangled himself still more, for only one solution is possible, viz., the recognition that the external world reflected by our mind exists independently of our mind."

Our old friend, the hapless R. Willy, is the next to try and save the "complexes of sensations." What could be experiencing the earth before there were humans? Well, he says, "we must simply regard the animal kingdom --- be it the most insignificant worm --- as primitive fellow-men if we regard animal life only in connection with general experience." So now a primitive worm is the stand in for human consciousness in the "principle co-ordination." Besides being a ludicrous theory it fails to solve the main issue because the earth existed before there any primitive worms as well. The empirio-criticists should, I think, just have appealed to Berkeley because his concept of God would have solved their problems.

Willy came up with his worm argument in 1896, but he eventually abandoned it and returned to the fray in 1905 with a new solution to the problem. Forget about the so-called millions of years before man came into existence. Time too is a product of the complexes of sensations. This means, he goes on to say, "that things outside men are only impressions, bits of fantasy fabricated by men with the help of a few fragments we find around us ['fragments' of what?]. And why not? Need the philosopher fear the stream of life?"

Well, the answer to that is NO! I hope my fellow philosophers will all agree to that! But we cannot follow Willy to his carpe diem conclusion! "And so I say to myself: abandon all erudite system-making and grasp the moment [seize the day] the moment you are living in, the moment which alone brings happiness." Lenin is unimpressed. Rather than be forced by their own logic into a materialist acceptance of the objectivity of the world, the empirio-criticists scurry off into a solipsistic world of their own making. So much for them.

Lenin now wants to see how the home grown "Marxist"- Machists in Russia handle this problem. He will first discuss A. Bazarov, real name V.A. Rudnev, 1874-1939. Bazarov joined the party in 1896, was a Bolshevik from 1904 to 1907 and was a Menshevik from 1917 until 1919. After 1921 he was employed by the Soviet government as a planner. His demise in 1939 raised my suspicions, but he seems to have died naturally from what I could gather from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia.

Lenin is criticizing Bazarov's book "Studies 'in' the Philosophy of Marxism." One of the main objections Lenin has to this book is that it treats Plekhanov (1856-1918, The Father of Russian Marxism) as the only representative of Materialism and ignores Marx and Engels! The work that Bazarov attacks is Plekhanov's "Notes to Engel's 'Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy'" (1892).

In that work Plekhanov has a passage in which he asks the Idealists what was the world like in the period before there were humans, a period such as the Mesozoic era. Plekhanov is addressing himself to Kantians but his remarks are just as, if not more, applicable to Empirio-monism (the Russian version of Machism) as represented by Bogdanov and Bazarov.

In that remote period Plekhanov asks if was the ichthyosauruses and the archaeopteryxes who were responsible for contemplating the world order? Idealism cannot answer this question hence it must be rejected as contrary to modern science.

This burns up Bazarov and he jumps all over Plekhanov saying that even he, Plekhanov, cannot know what "things-in-themselves" are like. We only know how they act on our senses and he quotes Plekhanov: "Apart from this action [on the senses] they possess no aspect." Therefore whatever Plekhanov had to say about ichthyosauruses and archaeopteryxes in attacking the Kantians applies equally to him.

Well, if Plekhanov burned up Bazarov, Bazarov has succeeded in burning up Lenin who proceeds to jump on him in turn. Lenin asks Bazarov if he is just taking cheap shots at Plekhanov ( having "a fencing bout " with him ) or is he actually trying to explain materialism. If he thought Plekhanov was wrong he should have explained the correct materialist position, but perhaps Bazarov is himself ignorant of the correct materialist teaching. "If Bazarov," Lenin says, "does not know that the fundamental premise of materialism is the recognition of the external world, of the existence of THINGS outside and independent of our mind, this a truly striking case of crass ignorance."

Well, Bazarov may be confused. Lenin is correct to say the existence of the external world "independent of our mind" is fundamental to MATERIALISM-- but it is also compatible with OBJECTIVE IDEALISM, as Lenin had earlier remarked himself when referring to Hegel back in Section 3: "Hegel's absolute idealism is reconcilable with the existence of the earth, nature, and the physical universe without man, since nature is regarded as the 'other being' of the absolute idea."

Unfortunately, Lenin makes a big mistake when he says here that Berkeley "rebuked the materialists for their recognition of 'objects in themselves' existing independently of our mind and reflected by our mind." Berkeley did rebuke materialists but not for believing that things exist independently from the human mind. The external world has an independent existence from human beings as the idea of God-- analogous to Hegel's other being of the Absolute Idea. Berkeley is thus an absolute idealist. Except for the mislabeling of Berkeley, Lenin's argument is essentially correct.

Bazarov's fulminations against Plekhanov are off target. As for Valentinov, who supports Bazarov, we can ignore this gentleman as Lenin, in a brief paragraph, shows that his position is "an incoherent jumble of words.

Next week we will finish off the last two sections of Chapter One